It’s inevitable at this point: driverless cars will one day take to the roads en masse, likely completely replacing cars as we know them today.

In some states, test runs have become the norm, with companies vying to outpace one another in their design, functionality, and ultimate implementation. Billions of dollars have already been invested, but issues concerning liability still remain a question.

While accidents are predicted to decrease as more driverless cars enter the roadways, the legal question of who pays when an accident does happen has been the subject of much analysis. Lawmakers are already considering how to rewrite the regulations that would govern insurance liability and how to judge responsibility in a collision.

The UK already has a framework in place for this very reason. The Automated and Electric Vehicles Act was passed there in 2018, and it sets out some new standards for insurance requirements and liability claims.

There’s still a long way to go in accident liability

In the US, a timeline has been laid out by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration highlighting milestones in autonomous car features that will take place in various increments. This could help lawmakers develop relevant new regulations at similar increments.

Liability can be complicated. For instance, an investigation into a driverless car crash in Tempe that killed a pedestrian brought into question the possibility that the pedestrian was at fault. Simultaneously, many wondered if a human driver would have reacted sooner.

In a separate fatal crash where a tractor collided with an autonomous Tesla after turning left in front of the Tesla, the system had been warning the Tesla driver to re-take control of the vehicle, which he ignored.

Generally, legal experts can anticipate these liability scenarios:

  • If the automated vehicle malfunctions and causes an injury or death, the car’s manufacturer would be held responsible through a form of product liability
  • If a company like Uber owns the malfunctioning vehicle, then Uber could be held liable as well
  • A pedestrian or cyclist can be at partial fault in similar ways to a collision involving a car with a human driver (i.e., the pedestrian walked out in front of the car from a visually obscured spot, crossed in front of it at night, etc.)

For now, liability judgements are made on a case-by-case basis. An attorney can help you determine whether a personal injury or a product liability claim best suits your case.